Posted in essay, travel

Is it Safe or Ethical to Visit North Korea?

Recently you might have seen my posts about a trip to North Korea that I took last summer. If not, then I’m sure you’ve heard about the American kid who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor there earlier this year. And if you’ve not heard about that, then I’m sure you know a few things about the world’s most secretive – and possibly the most oppressive – state.

There are then two questions you might want to ask before following in my footsteps and visiting the country. Those are:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it ethical?

My answer to both questions is a resounding YES and I’ll explain why below.

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Is it safe to visit North Korea?

Given the recent news about Otto Warmbier, you’d be forgiven for thinking that travel to North Korea was unsafe right now. Why risk being sentenced to hard labor in a country where no one will ever be able to come visit you, right?

But remember that what Warmbier did was incredibly risky and foolish. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the kid and his family – however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he took an astonishing risk in a place where the punishments are well-known. Before you go to North Korea, you are warned to be respectful. Every environment has its risk factors. If you climb a mountain and jump around next to a ledge with no safety gear, you might die. If you screw around underwater on a scuba trip, you might die. Go on safari and mess with a lion? You’re going to die.

Warmbier made a mistake and was punished. It happens every day when people walk out in front of cars and it’s very sad, but we shouldn’t let that convince us that the experience of going to North Korea is somehow unsafe.

In fact, if you are polite and respectful, it is actually phenomenally safe there. There are no criminals targeting foreigners. People go to Thailand, Mexico, and Italy every day and don’t think of them as especially dangerous places, yet crime against tourists is pretty common – from petty theft to more serious stuff. In North Korea the only danger is yourself.

Having said that, if you are injured, North Korea doesn’t exactly have an abundance of quality hospitals. In order to get into the country you need pretty comprehensive medical insurance, and if something were to go wrong, you’d be glad of it. For anything major, you’d need to be medivacked to Beijing. My guides told me that in their many, many years of operation, nobody had been arrested or put in any danger, but one man had gotten sick and needed an emergency flight to a hospital in China.

People worry about war, too. Although the situation between North Korea and South Korea (or, indeed, most of the rest of the world) seems more tense than usual, it is still not an imminent threat to security. In the South, people don’t worry – Seoul is only a few miles from the DMZ, and North Korea’s artillery could do untold damage in the event of war, yet no one blinks an eye. No one is afraid of travelling to Seoul.

Last summer I was in Pyongyang when the two countries reached a huge escalation of tensions and began shelling one another as the world thought the Korean War was back on… Yet in the streets of Pyongyang, as in Seoul, life went on as normal. I sat and watched a football game between teams from North Korea and South Korea and the players even shook hands.

Humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment, and we perceive the oddest things to be dangerous. Travel to North Korea is statistically very safe, so don’t let that put you off.

 

Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?

This is perhaps the greater question, and the one with a less clear answer. The primary argument against travel to North Korea goes like this: “The North Korean government is an evil, repressive organization that is a threat to world peace and its own citizens, and all travel money goes towards funding that organization.” There is also the claim that foreigners are playing into the hands of the North Korean propaganda machine by visiting the country, and that our presence there gives de facto support to the government.

The first point seems quite convincing, and indeed is a stated reason for many people who refuse to go, or chastise those of us who do. Yet I find it wholly unconvincing. For a start, the world is full of “evil, repressive” governments. I work in China, where the government has done myriad awful things to its people over its short history. It is arguably worse than North Korea, and yet the governments and companies of the world are eager to partner up with the Chinese government in order to make money of their own. We trade with China and visit China on holiday, and a chunk of this money goes to fund their repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, their censorship of the internet, their violation of human rights, and their absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea.

I pay taxes on books sold in the United States, and have given the US government money when living there or visiting as a tourist, and that money is party used to fund vicious wars and coups around the world, or turn their police force into a minority-murdered military unit. My point is that we cannot entirely rule out travel to North Korea on the premise that it funds their government unless we restrict travel to countries with particularly open, peaceful governments – and those countries are few and far between.

Moreover, while some money does directly go to the government, much money spent by tourists in North Korea is in foreign currencies and completely off the record. We pay our tour guides, for example, in tips that are never recorded. We buy food at stalls by the roadside that are unplanned stops, and no receipts are given. This money trickles down, not up. It goes to improve the lives of the people in North Korea, and not to fill the coffers of the government.

On that same line, I’d like to point out that the policy of isolation that the world (led by the United States) has taken against North Korea nearly since the end of the Korean War is largely what has caused its horrendous modern position. It was never allowed to function freely and to succeed, whereas South Korea was propped up and supported at all stages. We are partly responsible for the plight of the North Korean people and yet we continue to use them as a political tool – keeping them locked out of the rest of the world, hoping that they will starve sufficiently that they rise up and overthrow their government, whereupon we can replace the Kim dynasty with something pro-Western.

It is a despicable policy and I’m proud to have contributed to tourism in North Korea in a small way, as it helps the people there – something in which the rest of the world seems entirely disinterested.

As to the second point, regarding the appearance of foreigners in the country, I disagree that we are merely playing into the hands of government propaganda. Foreigners are widely demonized in North Korean history books, and our appearance in the country gives us a chance to show our human side. We can interact minimally with people and show ourselves as decent. When I was there, people responded shyly but positively to a foreign presence. It was much like being in rural China. Indeed, if tourists to North Korea act in a reasonable manner, we can effectively counteract government propaganda. Think of it as the diplomacy that otherwise doesn’t occur in North Korea.

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Conclusion

I see no good reason to avoid travelling to North Korea, if it is a place that interests you. I hesitated for a long time before going last year, but after thinking it all through I took a chance and went. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I have no regrets. Obviously, it is not for everyone. Whilst there you do have to show respect to their leaders and listen to their perverse versions of history. If you’re not comfortable bowing at a statue of Kim Jong-il, I don’t blame you, but don’t go. However, I think it is important to be exposed to things which are outside our comfort zone. Sure, you can go to Thailand and get drunk on the beach… but some places in the world really open your eyes, and for me, North Korea was one of them.

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Posted in essay, Photography, travel

Photos From Inside North Korea Pt.1

This is the first in a series of posts in which I show photos and tell stories about North Korea. The material comes from a trip I took last summer with Koryo Tours. I haven’t posted anything about the trip publicly until now because I didn’t feel right profiting from it. In North Korea, I saw and met a lot of wonderful people who are suffering because of the actions of both their government and others – particularly the United States. However, I keep seeing salacious stories on Facebook and elsewhere taken by people on similar tours which sell themselves as “illegal” and were “smuggled out” of the country. Some of them are good photos but generally I find them to be misrepresentations and exaggerations for the purpose of journalism. The way they are presented, whilst not outright lies, is intended to make the author/photographer appear more daring, and the country to appear darker and more terrifying. What I saw was the human face of the people – a side of the country we genuinely never see. It may not be as appealing as photos of soldiers or the lies behind “Floor 5 at the Yanggakdo Hotel,” but sometimes the truth lacks that cutting edge. I will be posting these photos over the coming days and weeks, and I hope that they act as a counterweight to the more sensationalist ones you’ll find in more mainstream publications. 

North Korea is famously a hermit state – an absolute pariah of the modern world. It barely trades with or communicates with the outside world, and its citizens can only leave under the strictest conditions, or by escaping illegally across one of its borders.

As such, we know very little about North Korea except what can be learned through satellite monitoring. Their propaganda is laughable, and any semblance of truth is hidden behind an impressive veil of secrecy.

Yet reporting on North Korea is big business. News agencies around the world regularly tell us what is happening in Pyongyang and elsewhere. They tell us who’s vying for power and who’s been recently executed. The only problem is, this is mere conjecture posing as fact. It is in some cases our best guess, and in many cases complete fabrication. Right-wing and left-wing publications are equally guilty. It seems that when it comes to North Korea, press standards go out the window – and that almost seems reasonable, given that North Korea itself has an entire lack of press freedom, and a comical propaganda machine.

Some information, though, does slip out. What’s more, one can actually get into the country and see for oneself what North Korea is like. Of course, journalists are banned… but the average person can, for a fee, visit North Korea and see what is hidden to most of the rest of the world.

Whether or not that’s ethical is up for debate. I danced with this issue for years before deciding for definite to go. On the one hand we’re funding the country’s repressive government, but on the other hand we’re giving money to an impoverished people. On the one hand we’re tools in their propaganda, but on the other hand we’re showing that foreigners are human beings just the same as them. Moreover, we’re seeing a side of North Korea that normally remains hidden to the world, dehumanizing its people and allowing our governments to use North Koreans as pawns in their war with the Kim Dynasty.

Last summer I went to North Korea for the half marathon on Mount Paekdu with Koryo Tours. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang and toured the city for a few days. We flew up to Mount Paekdu and saw some of the sights there, ran the half marathon, and then returned to Pyongyang before taking a train back up through the country and into China.

Cynics say that in North Korea you’ll never see the *real* country. Those cynics haven’t actually been to North Korea, of course… so they don’t know. The truth is that of course you’re going to see what the government wants you to see, and you’re never going to get a tour of a North Korean prison labour camp. That idea is absurd. The guides on any tour to North Korea will show you what the government wants you to see – impressive statues and artwork, museums and restaurants, etc. But you do get to see more than that. You’re driving around the country, seeing life as it is. You see regular people doing regular things – old men playing chess, children picking their noses and playing games with each other, men and women going to work. It’s easy to forget… North Koreans are humans, too. Their government may be evil and life may be tough, but they are just like we are.

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Most people there are very shy around foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. They are told awful things about us that make them fearful. Yet some of them are curious. I speak a bit of Korean, having lived in South Korea for several years. Sometimes the guides would disappear and leave us in the middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by thousands of people going about their lives, and I would talk to people. They wouldn’t say much, of course, but it was fascinating. It’s an experience I never thought I would have, and that may cynics deny is even possible.

A lot of people, too, suggest that everything you see is staged. That may well be true in certain, limited cases, but for the most part you are viewing real life as it goes on regardless of the proximity of foreigners. For example, my room way up high in the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooked Pyongyang, and through my camera’s long lens I could see parts of the city that clearly were never intended for foreigners to view. Life goes on there as it does elsewhere. On the subway, even, you see people going about their daily life, and they’re shocked and fascinated by foreigners much the same as people in rural China. In the north of the country, where we did the half marathon, we saw people working in fields and walking along country roads. They looked thin, over-worked, and deeply impoverished. None of this was hidden. Sometimes we’d see something the guides deemed “embarrassing” to the country, and we’d be told not to take photos – like soldiers being moved around in carts pulled by donkeys.

At the end of the trip, upon leaving the country, guards come onto the train and check every passenger’s luggage by hand, and investigate cameras for illicit photos – ie pictures of soldiers, construction sites, etc. When the guard came to my cabin he was, like almost all North Koreans I encountered, military or otherwise, very friendly. He asked what I had in my bag and I said, “Just clothes.” He accepted that. When going through our phones and cameras he laughed and looked at pictures from back home instead, asking about our wives and families and pets. He didn’t care about the pictures we had that broke the rules. (The featured photo at the top of this page is an example of a “banned photo.” It features the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung without including the entirety of their bodies. This is the sort of photo other photographers sell as “illegal” and suggest is dangerous to take.)

North Korea is different from what you think. I’m not defending their government or its actions in any way. But this is a country of human beings – of bright and friendly and warm human beings – and we group them together as “North Korea.” We talk about going to war with them and being able to destroy them easily. In that scenario, who suffers? I’ll tell you: the same people who’ve been suffering for the past sixty-plus years.

 

Posted in essay

North Koreans are not their Government

It pisses me off when I hear the hate espoused for North Korea. People seem to forget that the people are not their government. It should be obvious but when I see Facebook threads about yesterday’s H-bomb test, it invariably comes to comments like, “Let’s bomb them!” from even semi-rational people. 

Even the most reasonable argue for sanctions because they forget that North Koreans are humans who suffer from these sanctions, and that it is because of sanctions and blockades that the government has developed its militaristic hardline in the first place. 

I visited North Korea last year and let me tell you that the people are people just like anywhere else. The children are the same as children in any other country, yet we conveniently blot them from our minds when picturing the hermit kingdom.  

 Travel to North Korea may be controversial but for me it was eye opening, like travel anywhere. If you don’t want to go there then fine, but don’t forget that these are people just like anywhere else and that our approach to “dealing with” the DPRK causes their suffering.